(HOST) Willem Lange disagrees with Tom Wolfe; he says you can go home again. But when you get there, it’s usually gone.
(LANGE) “What if Thomas Wolfe was right?” I thought. The downtown gave way to what used to be stately neighborhoods. I’ve always thought it pretty simple to go home again. But driving up Onondaga Street, I wondered, “Where’re the trees?” The stores were barred or boarded. An old lady pushed a grocery cart full of old clothes along the sidewalk.
I was on a trip to visit my father in Syracuse on a Thursday. Afterward I’d beat the weekend traffic back through Amsterdam and Woodstock.
I crossed Brandon Gap, where the Adirondack Dome rears above the metamorphic rocks of Vermont. Then the Ticonderoga ferry that’s been running since the French and Indian War.
Many of us can remember when we drove old cars with balky carburetors, 6-volt batteries, and short life expectancy. We were forever alert for the death-rattle that meant our trip was about to end. So it’s with deep gratitude that I now drive a truck new enough to relieve me of all but a vestigial twinge of anxiety.
I took the long way to Syracuse, over secondary roads of the Tug Hill Plateau. You can find Tug Hill just east of Lake Ontario. Look for a hole in the map where there are almost no roads. It gets more snow than any other spot in the eastern United States.
I discovered Tug Hill in 1955, when a good friend and I spent the summer there quarrying stone. We lived in a large wall tent. Skunks came at mealtimes to our table, where we fed them most gingerly. We killed a big snapping turtle in the quarry one day and cooked him in tomato sauce. It was the toughest chewing I’ve ever experienced. The stone was beautiful blue quartzite. Weekends we paddled the steep streams that drain the Plateau – Salmon River, Fish Creek, and Black River. It was an idyllic summer that ended with the frosts of September.
Fifty years later I drove slowly over the familiar roads, looking for the stream that flowed through the old quarry. But I couldn’t find even the farmhouse that had stood beside it. Before long I realized that I must have passed it.
Then on to Syracuse. I passed the scenes of my youth – the YMCA, where I learned to swim; the comer where I met my wife; my elementary school; and Onondaga Street. The trees, which had made of it a green tunnel, were gone. I found our old bungalow on Gordon Avenue. The house is white now, but not otherwise changed. Finally, the park and lake where I learned to fish. Clearly the victim of pollution and neglect, the lake is infested with weeds and Canada geese. The bathhouses are closed and shuttered. Tom was half right. You can go home. But when you get there, it’s gone!
This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.
Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke to us from our studio in Norwich.